Home News Speeches Lessons Learned from Military Service: Duty, Dedication, and Leadership
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  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Department of Justice Veterans Appreciation Ceremony
  • Washington, D.C.
  • November 09, 2011

Good morning, and thank you, Attorney General Holder, for that kind introduction.

I am honored to be here with so many fellow veterans. As you know, I am a Marine. But I am not unduly biased—I hold every branch of the armed services in great esteem…even the Army. I must confess, some of the best training I ever got was in Army Ranger and Jump Schools. 

I want to begin by acknowledging not only my fellow veterans here today, but service men and women around the world—men and women who face grave danger with courage and strength. I want to acknowledge those who have come before us, and those who have fallen. I also want to acknowledge those who make a quiet and often overlooked sacrifice—the families who are left behind. 

My first daughter was born while I was in Vietnam. She was 6 months old before I first held her. And I can tell you that on that first occasion, she cried the entire time. We all understand the sacrifices made by service members overseas, and their families here at home. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the entire armed forces family.

Fifty years ago, in May 1961, President Kennedy sent Green Berets to South Vietnam to help train South Vietnamese soldiers. Many of you may remember those days as though it were last week. You may remember friends who went to Vietnam, but who did not return. You may remember the American public in turmoil, the protests, and the nightly news reports. 

None of us would choose to re-live that history. But to this day, I count my decision to join the military as one of the best decisions I have ever made. Indeed, it is a decision that has had a lasting and profound impact on my life. 

I joined the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War. A good friend who was a year ahead of me in school—David Hackett—had joined the Marines, and he was killed in Vietnam. David’s decision to serve his country made an impact on me and several of my friends. Many of us saw David as a leader, and we were inspired to follow in his footsteps. 

The Marine Corps taught me the value of sacrifice, teamwork, and discipline—the same values inherent in every branch of the military. 

I also credit the military with shaping my life in terms of public service. My years in Vietnam—the experiences I shared with my fellow Marines—shaped my world view. I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have made it out of Vietnam. There were many who did not. And perhaps because I did survive, I have always felt compelled to contribute.  

I would not be who I am today had I not served in the military. I would not have been as prepared for the challenges I have faced, both in my professional and personal life. I was a Marine first, and that set the foundation for everything that followed.

Many of you here today feel exactly the same way.

It is akin to becoming a parent for the first time. Once you have a child, you see the world from a different perspective. You make different choices. The same is true for military service. Once you don that uniform—regardless of the color—you see the world through different eyes. And from that moment on, you take the road less traveled.

It has been more than 42 years since I had the thrill of putting on my uniform for the first time.

As an aside, I have been married for 45 years—just slightly longer than I have been a Marine—and I can count on one hand the number of serious arguments my wife and I have had. But one argument does stand out from the others—it was the day I discovered she had given away my Marine Corps dress blues.

As I remember it, we were moving to the West Coast, and we were downsizing. I simply did not realize to what extent…or that it would include my dress blues. My wife Ann’s defense to this day is that I approved this “donation” before the fact. I cannot believe I would willingly have surrendered my dress blues, but she assures me it is true…if only because I could no longer fit into them. 

Some truths are harder to live with than others. 

I might never have worn that uniform again, but to my mind, it represented leadership, determination, and duty. And on the day I first donned that uniform, it represented potential. In truth, that “potential” is all my wife had when she married me. Even she was appropriately skeptical about where I would end up. 

My uniform, like yours, was a symbol of tradition. A symbol of pride and respect. A symbol of commitment to our country. 

It does call to mind a story I read some time ago, about a young man who was contemplating joining the military. 

The Army recruiter tried to sweet talk the young man with pictures of beautiful bases in Italy and Germany, beaches in Hawaii, and beer festivals in Munich. The Navy recruiter gave the young man a brochure showing happy sailors on the deck of a destroyer in the Mediterranean.

The Marine recruiter was the last to visit. He said, “Son, the Marine Corps will make you sick. It will make you cry. And when that’s over, you will be sent to the most miserable, God-forsaken place on the planet. So let me ask you this: Why should I let you join my corps?” 

Yet for some unknown reason, the young man in question did join the Marines. 

Though I must point out, in fairness, this story could be changed to feature any branch of the military. Each one has its selling points…and all of them have their downsides. 

Those recruiters saw the potential in that young man. More importantly, that young man saw the individual he could become, given the opportunity. That same opportunity was presented to each of us, years ago, and it has shaped who we are today.

Everyone in this room understands that there is no better leadership training than serving in the military. Regardless of the branch of service, the leadership lessons are the same.

The troops eat first. 

Don’t ask anyone to do that which you are unwilling to do yourself. 

Lead by example. Tackle the assignment head on, accomplish it, and move on to the next mission.  

One of the lessons I was supposed to learn was the need to delegate.

In officer candidate school, they evaluate you—physically and academically. I did fine on those, but I did not do well in the “delegation” category. I complained to my training sergeant, “What is this ‘delegation,’ and why are they evaluating me on it?” 

I did come to find that delegation is an essential component in running an organization. 

The fact of the matter is, to whom you delegate and how you delegate is as important as anything else. However, people will tell you I am still not very good at it—even after 10 years in my current position—and those are the individuals that are currently being micromanaged by me. 

Several years ago, I had a rather salty chief of staff, Lee Rawls. Some of you may remember Lee, for he spent part of his career with the Department of Justice. He passed away last year, but he is indeed missed by many. 

Lee was not afraid to put me in my place when I failed to delegate. More than once, when I sought to micromanage a situation, he would politely push me to the side. And I would hear him say, “Don’t listen to him. He thinks he’s the Director of the FBI. But we can take care of this.” 

Some of you may have heard this story, but in one particularly heated meeting, everyone was frustrated—mostly with me—and I myself may have been a wee bit ill-tempered. Lee sat silently, and then said, “What is the difference between the Director of the FBI and a 4-year-old?” The room grew hushed. Finally, he said, “Height!” 

Micromanaging aside, the FBI has made great strides over the past decade. We have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks since September 11th and we have greatly enhanced our intelligence capabilities. I credit the men and women of the FBI for that progress, many of whom are veterans themselves, and who have applied the lessons learned from their time in the military. 

Over the years, I have been blessed with three families, the most important of which is my immediate family, followed by my Marine Corps family, and now, my DOJ and FBI family.

Likewise, for many of you, your military colleagues have become your family, and they have remained with you over the years, both in person and in memory.

Each branch of the armed services is, in its own way, a band of brothers and sisters. Each is dedicated to keeping our country safe. And each has a special relationship with the American people. 

There is a phrase that represents what it means to become a Marine, but it is equally applicable to every service member, and, indeed, to every veteran. That phrase is: “Earned, never given.” 

In Marine boot camp, they will tell you that you will not be given anything other than the opportunity to prove that you have the courage to join a line of warriors stretching back 236 years. 

Though the history of each branch of the armed forces is different, the dedication is the same. The willingness to serve is the same. The sacrifice is the same.

For every veteran, we know that we are measured by our ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. We know that we are judged not by what we have, but by what we gave. We have been tested, not on the basis of strength alone, but on honor, principle, and integrity. And what we have earned will always be with us. 

Over the years, we have heard countless stories of bravery and courage under fire, in every branch of the armed forces. Reports of service members who have done more than answer the call of duty—they have rushed forward to meet that duty. Individuals who have thrown themselves on live grenades to save their friends. Individuals who have walked into the line of fire to bring a fallen soldier home. Men and women who have been willing to forsake life and limb to protect their fellow citizens. 

That is what is expected of those who serve. From its birth—the beginning of our country—that is what has always been expected.

There is a story I tell to new agents upon their graduation from the FBI Academy—a story that Senator Sessions of Alabama told at my FBI confirmation hearing. The senator said that several years earlier, when he was a federal prosecutor, he was trying an important case. 

One of our FBI special agents, who had “worked her heart out” on the investigation, was being cross-examined by the defense attorney. He said to her, “You call yourself a special agent. Who are all these agents? Are they all special Agents?”

She replied, “Yes, they are.” The lawyer said, “Well, it’s not really so special then, is it?” The agent did not hesitate for a second.  e looked the lawyer in the eye, and said, “Sir, it is to me.” 

These words ring as true for all of you who are veterans as they do for the FBI. Serving your country is indeed a special calling. It is special for you. It is special for your families and friends. And it is special for the American people.   

I am indeed honored to be a Marine. And I am honored to be counted among you as a veteran. Thank you for your service and God bless.

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